The Battle for the Soul of the Library: A Response

The following is a letter I sent the New York Times in response to the editorial written by Stanley Kurtz on February 24, 2022.

To the Editor,

I write in response to Stanley Kurtz’s The Battle for the Soul of the Library published in February 24th. I appreciate Dr. Kurtz’s concern for libraries and very much appreciate his identification of librarians as crucial players in the ongoing debates about challenged materials and ideological debates in our school and public libraries. I do, however, disagree with both his assertion that librarians can be neutral, his attribution of the current raft of challenges to librarians, and his assertion that trust in the profession is founded on neutrality.

Librarians are not, and have never been neutral. They are human, and human beings are driven by conscious and unconscious bias. But rather than debate the point, let me posit we don’t want librarians to be neutral. We want librarians to work to make our communities better. We want our libraries to help communities make smarter decisions and to help community members find meaning.

We see this in the rising trust of librarians that have a clearly stated mission of societal improvement through literacy and access to information, and the waning trust in institutions such as the press and, well, just about every other form of government institution. We trust librarians not because they simply point to all information on a topic, but because they work with us to find the right materials for our given need. This requires professional and personal definitions of “better” and “smarter.”

Librarians believe in freedom of access to ideas. This is not neutral. The fight against censorship and collecting books on controversial topics as Dr. Kurtz lays out are examples of non-neutral acts. There are plenty of countries where such concepts are defined by the state as detrimental to citizens and therefore ideas, stories, and materials are suppressed. It is only through the actions and advocacy of librarians that things we consider neutral or common today have found a place in libraries in the first place.

In his book “Part of our Lives,” library historian and scholar Wayne Wiegand writes about the evolution of the public library. He talks about concerted efforts to keep dangerous materials out of libraries. Books that would appeal only to “Schoolchildren; factory and shop girls; men who tended bar, drove carriages, and worked on farms and boats; and finally, fallen women, and, in general, the denizens of the midnight world, night-owls, prowlers, and those who live upon sin and its wages.” The books in question? Literary novels.

The common acceptance that libraries house novels and promote literacy in children is the result of professional library staff working with their community to reinvent the very concept of a library to be more inclusive. Throughout history we can see how acts of librarians did not simply follow some proscribed neutral course, but rather imagined a better and more inclusive society. It was ultimately acts of advocacy that freed manuscripts from chains, opened the stacks for anyone to browse, and even made real the ideals of an informed society fit to govern itself. It is no coincidence that the very idea of the public library grew out of the same social movements that gave us universal public education, and women the right to vote.

The Bill of Rights you mention was first drafted in the 1930s. It was drafted when libraries, colleges, and our schools were segregated. When so-called unbiased librarians and their boards were content to maintain a status quo. It took the push of citizens and brave library advocates to break the myth of neutrality, and bring us closer to a truth of the ideal of access for all.

Also, let me challenge the assertion that neutrality is achieved through a balance of views. While this may sound good in theory, in reality I believe as a society we feel there aren’t two-sides to issues like the Holocaust. And before I am accused of using a straw man argument, two of the cases of challenged materials in the past months have literally been about the Holocaust. Also, to be clear, in issues of trans-rights, LGBTQ+ representation, black inclusion, and the very foundations of democracy, giving equal time to those that not only ignore science but question the very right of these groups to exist, is not as simple as two equal views on a topic. For our society to have an informed and vigorous debate, it must be provided a foundation of intellectually honest ideas freed from the other pandemic of misinformation. 

Also, as a library science educator let me assure you that building collections and offering programs is not a simple task approached with little preparation. Library professionals, including the woke ones, have extensive study of collection development, including incorporating community needs and norms into the process. Simply developing services or collections with no connection and input from a community is antithetical to the graduate preparation of librarians.

It is in his highlighting of this process that I believe Dr. Kurtz mischaracterizes some of the current controversy. Where he sees divergence from an ideal of neutrality as a primary issue in the current raft of book challenges, I see a more complex reality on the ground. For example, in many of the cases publicized, librarians have been removed from the challenge process. Instead of using established procedures and policies (many of which involve the simple act of actually reading the book in question) boards and school administrators have removed the trained information professional from the process.

I would also contend that in many of these challenges, it is not a matter of balance that is being sought. In case after case, the arguments erupting at our town halls and school boards is not to add materials to a collection. It is to remove books, and ideas, and exposure to thinking that is not held by a vocal part of the community. The solution being proposed to libraries carrying “A People’s History of the United States” is not to add other views – it is to remove them, or worse. He and I agree that a solution of adding voices is positive for libraries, but let us not pretend that all voices are being given equal weight here.

When a 9 page list of books was circulated by the Texas State Legislature to schools around the state, it was not to ensure that multiple perspectives were being made equally available. It was clearly a concern that the books on the list – books about the black experience, about AIDS, about LGBTQ+ topics-were not in line with recent legislation seeking to limit what was taught in the classroom and school libraries. Dr. Kurtz can make the distinction between formal curriculum and resources in a school library, but that is NOT what is happening in these actions.

Also, to be clear that often what is being characterized as woke collections, or activist favoring of marginalized voices is actually a balancing of collections built over decades and in some cases, centuries favoring narratives of and by white straight males. As a white straight male, I really don’t have problems seeing myself in the collection of libraries around the nation. I have too many fellow citizens that cannot say the same.

I would hope Dr. Kurtz would join us non-neutral librarians in fighting for more balance on both sides. But never equate balance – the state of equilibrium among countering forces – with neutrality. And never believe that balance can achieve what we ultimately need from these bastions of social infrastructure: common ground and shared conversations.

10 Replies to “The Battle for the Soul of the Library: A Response”

  1. I was a member of the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee when we revised the document in 1967. Previous versions had “laundry lists” of kinds of materials that should not be proscribed and people against whom there should be no discrimination. We tried to make the language as broad as possible. We could not foresee the issues such as sexuality and religion which have been the basis for many of today’s challenges, nor the development of the Internet. I am proud that we crafted a document that still serves librarians today.

  2. “… Also, to be clear, in issues of trans-rights, LGBTQ+ representation, black inclusion, and the very foundations of democracy, giving equal time to those that not only ignore science but question the very right of these groups to exist, is not as simple as two equal views on a topic. For our society to have an informed and vigorous debate, it must be provided a foundation of intellectually honest ideas freed from the other pandemic of misinformation. …” I especially appreciate this, and thank you for it. I used to lean toward “full neutral,” which was really easy to do in a rural homogenous society. I learn every day the urgency of pushing back against that rut. It’s like losing your transmission on the interstate: dangerous to self and others.

    1. Lisa, I’d like to urge reflection on the phrase “rural homogenous society”. The more I listen to rural community residents and their library workers, the more I see this phrase as folly. It hides the LGBTQAI+ kids and adults, it reinforces the rural narrative that to be who you are you’ll have to move to the city, and it forgives the systemic redlining and land theft that turned a majority African-American, Latino, and American Indian landscape white. That was a process that occurred within the last 140 years.
      I grew up in a small town in a rural socially and politically conservative region. I carry my wide-river valley with me everywhere I go, but it will never be home. I was told “you’re the big city type” and am challenged to unlearn the myth of rural homogeneity. Maybe we’ll both be better off if we sit with the falsity in the notion.?

  3. Here’s the letter I sent to the NYT:

    “By recapturing library neutrality,” writes Stanley Kurtz, “we can provide a model for coping with our broader national conflicts.” Wishful thinking; libraries have never been “neutral.” Three months after the American Library Association (ALA) passed a Library Bill of Rights, five Black teenagers conducted a sit-in at the segregated Alexandria (VA) public library. And as Black kids began integrating white schools after the 1954 Brown decision, they entered libraries with collections largely supporting white ideologies and “Lost Cause” interpretations of the Civil War; many had Confederate flags on their walls and busts of Robert E. Lee on open shelves. ALA said nothing about these and hundreds of other 20th century incidents that reflected a racially biases set of professional practices and collections. Be not deceived by librarians’ rhetoric, Mr. Kurtz. Public pressure will still force librarians to buy copies of Donald Trump’s $80 rip-off book celebrating his presidency, just like many felt they had to buy Madonna’s rip-off Sex several decades ago.

    Wayne A. Wiegand, author of “Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library” (2015) and “American Public School Librarianship: A History” (2021)

    1. The idea of being able to chose when one is neutral is a lot like being able to chose in which circumstances one is pregnant.

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